“Honoring Our Heritage, Building Our Future” is the theme of Hispanic Heritage Month this year. To me, it’s far more than a slogan. It reflects my hopes, and my concerns, as an educator of Mexican descent. We as educators have much to celebrate.
According to the Pew Research Center,
Hispanics cite education as a top priority—even above immigration. Research also found the number of Hispanics ages 18 to 24 enrolled in a two- or four-year college has tripled since 1993. This is indeed a crowning achievement of our Hispanic heritage—a cultural willingness among parents to make significant sacrifices so that their children will enjoy a better life. It’s the way I was raised, as were so many of my fellow Hispanic educators. That devotion to family can be a positive or negative factor, as we seek to build our educational future. A recent poll found that 66 percent of Hispanics who chose a job or military service right after high school instead of college did so because they said
they needed to support their families. Hispanics also are far more likely than any other ethnic group to attend two-year instead of four-year colleges. This has created a bachelor’s degree lag among Hispanics. There is a growing awareness about what we call
the Belief Gap. Put simply, it is the gap between what students can achieve and what they—and we—
believe they can achieve. Belief is there from day one, and it’s there under the frenetic activity of the daily school experience. It can elevate, or it can crush.
Students who believe they are destined for success will be pulled up toward it. Those who believe otherwise can drift toward mediocrity, or into a post-high school life that is culturally familiar (job, early marriage, children). I was the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Many Hispanic educators of my generation can say the same. We were fortunate. Others are challenged by what I call an educational silence. If college is not spoken of in the home, if parents do not know the dialect of the college trajectory, college aspirations—if they exist—become invisible. What is not seen, what is not spoken of, will not be.
The first step toward breaking this silence is to engage parents. If educators tell mothers and fathers, face to face, what their sons and daughters are capable of achieving, parents believe. Specifics matter. A parent is more likely to believe in Joaquin’s abilities if an educator tells them, “Joaquin is an excellent artist. Let me show you his work. I am particularly impressed with his ability to interpret things he sees in everyday life and express them through painting.” Propelled by this belief, parents are more likely to support their child’s educational efforts and hold their kids accountable—especially in subjects and areas where those kids need to improve. The scenario may play out like this, with a parent saying, “Joaquin, what kind of help do you need in math? Who can you talk to at school to get that help? We need to improve your math skills to clear a path toward your dream of earning a bachelor’s degree and becoming a graphic artist.”
Belief in the common good, the importance of family, and a collectivist world view are part of our Hispanic heritage. Our belief in shared sacrifice, the understanding that we are not alone, is a powerful lever for success. This is our legacy, a treasured tradition handed down to us. Our opportunity now is to use it as a force to propel students toward four-year degrees. When a Hispanic student graduates from college, the entire family graduates with her. Beliefs change. This month, I hope we as Hispanic educators will make a new commitment to harnessing our heritage in service to our future. If our families believe we can get past today’s obstacles and earn a four-year degree, we will succeed.
Ref Rodriguez is the first LGBT and charter school co-founder on the Los Angeles Unified School District school board.